Gojyo was the first of the regulars to leave, quite a few hours earlier than he had intended. Earlier, hell— he’d left plain early, and the bar didn’t even open till sundown. So when he spotted some guy staggering through the forest, weaving to avoid obstacles that weren’t there and crashing into ones that were, his first thought was a mix of awe and envy that anyone could get that drunk that quickly. His second thought, as the guy got closer and Gojyo saw that he was doubled over and clutching his stomach, was to get the hell out of the way before the guy puked on him.
Third thought: He’s not drunk, he’s…
The guy stumbled, fell to his knees, and caught himself with one hand. His other arm stayed pressed into the bloodiest spot on a body that was a bloody mess all over, and his head hung down so all Gojyo could see of it was a lot of wet hair and a pair of youkai ears. Which were sharp in more ways than one, because the guy suddenly raised his head and looked straight at Gojyo, though Gojyo hadn’t spoken or even moved from where he was standing.
One of his eyes was either gone or swollen shut—there was so much blood that Gojyo couldn’t tell. But the other one, green as the vine patterns that twined around his face and hands, burned with such distracting intensity that the guy was halfway through a sentence before Gojyo registered what he was saying.
“You have to help me…”
“OK,” said Gojyo automatically.
He continued right over Gojyo’s words. “…change back.”
“Please.” He didn’t beg, but spoke with the formal courtesy you might hear at the kind of dinner parties Gojyo didn’t get invited to. “Take me afterward. Change me back first.”
The guy was looking at him as if he saw someone entirely different from an odd-looking stranger, or even a youkai half-breed.
As if he knows me, thought Gojyo. As if I’m someone he loves.
Like that would ever happen.
Gojyo had never seen him before, and he’d have remembered that face. The guy was obviously out of his mind with pain and shock. “You want to change to your human form?”
He nodded. “These aren’t my hands.”
They looked like perfectly good hands to Gojyo. The guy must have been massively outnumbered or overpowered to have come out of a fight this badly when he had claws like that.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now,” said Gojyo, so soothing and polite that he barely recognized his own voice. “You’re a lot stronger like this, and it looks like you’re hurt pretty bad. Maybe bad enough to kill a human. Why don’t I take you to—“
The guy was on him before he could register movement. Gojyo’s shoulder slammed into a tree, and claws pricked his throat. “Change me back. Or—”
Gojyo grabbed the guy’s wrist and hooked his feet out from under him. Catching him by the arms, Gojyo lowered him to the ground. Then he put his knee across the guy’s thighs and pinned his arms. Now that it was exposed, Gojyo saw that the wound was even worse than he’d thought. How the hell had the guy managed to attack him with his belly ripped open like a ritual suicide and his guts spilling out?
“Or you’ll what?” inquired Gojyo. “Strangle me with your small intestine?”
The guy lay panting beneath him, but glared up like he’d get back to trying to kill Gojyo as soon he caught his breath.
“Anyway, what do you need me for? Put on your limiter yourself, if you’re that eager to drop dead.”
“I don’t have one.”
You can’t misplace your limiter any more than you can misplace your foot. But Gojyo had never seen those vine patterns before, so maybe the guy was from some obscure clan that didn’t use them.
“Have you ever had one?”
The guy shook his head.
“Then you’ll have to make it. But…”
But I’m pretty sure it’ll kill you.
But no one ever taught me how.
But that’s not my problem.
But I just wanted a night of gambling and drinking and maybe a soft bed with a soft blonde, not to get jumped and covered in someone else’s blood and have to watch while some guy with a pretty face and an eye like a welding torch finishes dying in the body he wants to go out in.
“Teach me how,” the guy said, as calm as if he was asking how to play seven card stud.
Gojyo wasn’t fooled. That serenity would vanish like beer from a pitcher the instant Gojyo said no. Gojyo was sitting on top of a dying man, but he felt like he was the one who’d been defeated. If Gojyo argued, the guy would argue back till his last breath. If Gojyo walked away, the guy would lie here and bleed to death. If Gojyo tried to physically drag him to a doctor, the guy would fight till it killed him. The guy was more determined to get what he wanted and get it right now, than Gojyo had been to get anything in his entire life. He wanted to be human, and he didn’t care if it killed him— in fact, Gojyo suspected that he hoped it would kill him. For some reason, that annoyed Gojyo.
“Fine.” Gojyo released the guy and sat down on the ground. The guy grabbed on to a tree and dragged himself up until he was sitting up against it.
“OK, so…” Gojyo fought an unexpected wave of stage fright. So what if he’d never done this before? So what if he’d never taught anyone anything before? It wasn’t like this guy was going to report him to the Youkai Teacher’s Association if he did it wrong. “Your limiter is part of you. You picture it as a piece of jewelry you can wear, but it’s the part of you that wants to be human. So think of what you want it to look like, and think of what you’d look like as a human. Then hold out your hand—“
Obediently, the guy extended a bloody palm. But he flinched at the sight of it, and his hand jerked.
“Keep it out. Now imagine it in your hand, that thing that will make you human. I mean, don’t just imagine, will it to be there, will it as hard as you want to be—“
A greenish glow formed, and a tiny steel ornament dropped into his palm. The guy breathed out a long sigh, and closed his hand over it.
Gojyo felt obscurely disappointed at how easy it had been. “What is it, a pinky ring?”
“An ear cuff.” He clipped it on to one sharp ear.
Absolutely nothing happened.
Gojyo could feel the guy’s rage start to build, like the heaviness of air before a storm.
“You’re not done yet,” Gojyo said sharply.
“Sometimes you need more than one. And I hadn’t finished telling you how to do it. Put out your hand again. Now think of something you care about, other than having a different body. It could be someone you love…”
“She loved my hands.” A second cuff fell into his palm.
Gojyo had always wondered if Jien…
“What now?” The guy now wore two steel cuffs on his still-pointy ear.
“The last one is for you. These are made of your will, your life-force—so, the last part is to focus on how much you want to live. And for yourself, not for anybody else.”
The guy’s eye widened in indignation. “But I don’t—“
“Tough,” said Gojyo, not bothering to hide his satisfaction. “That’s how it works. Figure it out, or stay as you are.”
There was a long silence, while the guy alternated between concentrating over his hand and shooting murderous looks in Gojyo’s direction.
“I don’t think so,” he said at last. “I think will is will, and you can focus on wanting anything.”
His eye and vine markings soaked up the green light, making Gojyo as aware of them as he’d been the first moment the guy had looked at him. “Anything at all.” The last cuff appeared in his palm.
“You got me,” confessed Gojyo.
“I dunno. Just perverse, I guess.”
“Thank you for coaching me.” The guy paused with his hand halfway to his ear. “You’re a good teacher. Sometimes students just don’t want to follow the lesson plan.” He clipped on the last limiter.
Light flickered, and the youkai guy was gone. In his place was a man with a round human pupil in an eye that was the same dense green as the youkai guy’s. His ears were curved and his vines were gone, but he had the same beautiful, battered face. He looked down at his soft human hands with their next-to-useless nails, and then at Gojyo. “Now,” he whispered, as his eye began to drift out of focus.
You are one tough bastard, Gojyo almost said. Human or youkai, I think you’re gonna make it. But he kept silent, for fear of wiping away the guy’s fragile, haunting smile.